State officials are about to go after the last of the mute swans - beautiful to some, a menace to others - living in Maryland.
In what many believe will be the final word in a long fight, Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin on Monday accepted the report of a task force on the swans, saying that his staff is "unfortunately compelled" to continue population control efforts on the fewer than 500 birds still living on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
That means shooting adults or snapping their necks, and coating eggs with vegetable oil to suffocate embryos.
Almost immediately, the report was labeled a sham by two dissenters on the task force.
"It was absolutely a dog-and-pony show," said John Grandy, a task force member and senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "We have a request into the governor for a meeting. Our constituents don't want any more swans killed."
Grandy said the state went back on its word to stop killing swans when the number was "negligible," about 500 birds.
But the task force report says allowing that number of birds to remain "would be a constant and perpetual source of competition for scarce conservation resources."
Mute swans have been a flash point in the management of Maryland wildlife, pitting bird lover against bird lover and putting animal advocates on opposite sides. Over seven years, the battle has been waged in federal court, in Congress and in Annapolis, as each side has tried to block the other.
Even the task force report and the minority opinion show the deep divide.
The majority concluded the birds are "aggressive" and an "environmental hazard" that should be eliminated, if possible. But Grandy and Joseph Lamp, a member of the state's Wildlife Advisory Commission, called them a "beautiful, engaging and captivating part of the Chesapeake Bay" that should be "treasured and maintained for the enjoyment of citizens."
Biologists say adult swans eat up to 8 pounds of underwater grasses daily, eliminating critical vegetation that filters bay water and controls erosion. Ornithologists complain that the non-native swans push native birds such as least terns, black ducks and tundra swans out of nesting areas.
"The biology is clear. The management is clear," said Jonathan McKnight, the DNR scientist who heads the eradication program. "There's not a lot of disagreement except for the animal advocates."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife and Maryland Ornithological Society strongly favor eradication. The Humane Society and PETA say the problem can be handled by nonlethal means.
A 2001 task force recommended reducing the population to fewer than 500 birds, a plan that was blocked by lawsuits. A 2003 management plan didn't choose a number, but resulted in the killing of 1,500 birds.
Grandy, a waterfowl biologist, calls what the state is doing "scapegoating."
"Sailboats with rudders and boats with outboard motors pull up and destroy more aquatic vegetation than 450 mute swans in an entire year. That's the truth," he said.
Mute swans, native to Europe and Asia, are Maryland's largest bird. Adults have a wing span of nearly 7 feet and average 25 pounds. They are not completely silent: They hiss, snort or grunt if annoyed.
It all began with five birds that escaped from a Talbot County estate in 1962. At their peak a decade ago, there were about 4,000 birds, with a population that was projected to double every eight years.
After a spring push that killed 125 birds, state biologists estimate that fewer than 500 birds remain, living in the coves and tributaries of the bay. An unknown number live in the Virginia portion of the bay.
Reducing the population further will be harder, McKnight acknowledged. The birds move around and some nest on private property where owners have denied access.
Lamp said it was clear to him that the natural resources agency never intended to stop after he saw a PowerPoint presentation that showed where the birds lived and how the state was going to get them.
"It looked like a grid of bombs over Baghdad. I almost fell off my chair," he said. "There was never going to be a compromise."
Grandy said the public would be outraged if it knew more about the method used to kill swans: Birds are herded together and a device like a bolt cutter is used to crush their necks.
Lamp expects political fallout from the state's decision. A group, Maryland Votes for Animals, has been formed - the mute swans are the catalyst - with an eye toward next year's state elections.
"This will come back to haunt DNR," Lamp predicted. "People will remember this."